21st Century Children and Families Act

Whether it gets through or not, it is a step in the right direction. New legislation authored by California Rep. Karen Bass (D), would drastically change that standard: Under the 21st Century Children and Families Act, states could not even attempt to permanently sever children from their parents until they’d been in foster care for two full years consecutively, barring extreme circumstances — and even then it would be up to the states, and no longer a federal mandate. The reason that this is important is that the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires states to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of 22 consecutive months. Granted this is just a tiny step.

“This bill is an important first step in moving away from cookie-cutter timelines that have caused devastating harm to children and families for decades,” said Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the family advocacy unit for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

Existing exemptions would be maintained for certain “aggravated” circumstances, such as when parents have committed sexual abuse or have been involved with the death of another child. But the legislation would free parents from the federal timeline when their custody rights are threatened due to incarceration or immigration detention — or in cases where they are actively working with the court to overcome hurdles in their lives to successfully bring the family back together. Parents are not subjected to the federal timeline if their children are placed with relatives.

Under the bill, if a state so chooses, it could eliminate all timeline requirements, except in cases involving aggravated circumstances. 

Bass announced her landmark legislation in a news release Thursday. “It’s time to update old child welfare laws,” she said. “More needs to be done to improve foster kids’ options for stability in their lives. Premature modification of parental rights too often leaves children in foster care with no legal family.”

The legislation is at the earliest possible stage, and far from guaranteed, with many elements that could lead to controversy, including strengthening the rights of prospective LGBTQ parents. The bill could also be challenged by representatives of the adoption industry, policy watchers said.

“With respect to the timelines, we’ll be looking at those proposed changes carefully and considering how they affect children and families involved in foster care, especially BIPOC children and families, given the systemic discrimination they face,” said Mary Boo, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

Children removed from their homes following allegations of abuse or neglect remain in foster care while their parents address the issues that landed them there, issues typically arising from extreme poverty. Under family and dependency court oversight, local child welfare systems must mitigate the circumstances that led to the child’s removal into foster care, offering the parents therapy, anger management, parenting classes and drug treatment, as well as the time necessary to overcome situational crises such as homelessness or illness.

Charles Redding barbecues for his two children last Easter at the home of a relative in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The family is now in dependency court fighting to stay together.

But that time is often not enough. The pandemic has brought heightened scrutiny to the “cruelty” of federal timelines. Parents such as Charles Redding of Minnesota have fought to regain custody of their children when circumstances are stacked against them to no fault of their own. Redding, for instance, had emerged from jail with no computer to attend court-mandated hearings and online classes, and the local center where he needed to go for drug testing suspended services. Earlier this year, Redding’s two children sobbed through a virtual court appearance, imploring a Hennepin County juvenile court judge to give their dad more time to secure stable housing for them to live together.

David Kelly, a former official in the U.S. Children’s Bureau, called the bill introduced this week “a critical, long overdue step toward justice for families,” adding: “I hope it proves a galvanizing moment for realizing the family children need most is their own.”

Bass is a longstanding champion of children and parents caught up in the foster care system — families who are disproportionately Black and Native American. She is among those emphasizing that the bar for reunification is often too high, and the impact of permanent family separation too damaging to continue the federal standards as they currently exist.

“The changes that I’m proposing today focus the foster care system on the child and the idea that children should be at the center of our efforts,” Bass stated. 

Her legislation would require that before moving to terminate parental rights, states must describe the steps they took and services they provided to help keep a family together. It would also mandate data collection on the accessibility and availability of those services. 

Shanta Trivedi, director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore said that while states are already required under law to provide services under a “reasonable efforts” standard, the proposed law will ensure that protocol is followed for every family.

“This puts teeth into the ‘reasonable efforts’ requirement that were previously absent,” Trivedi said. 

The bill has another key element: It adds sexual orientation, gender identity and religion to federal nondiscrimination protections that previously only included race and ethnicity. Under the proposed law, states and agencies they contract with could not “deny to any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or a foster parent” based on those additional factors. The provision would directly challenge laws in nearly a dozen states that permit faith-based providers to exclude members of the LGBTQ community by following religious ideology in choosing which foster and adoptive parents, or even which youth in foster care, they will and will not serve.

The legislation proposed by Bass retains current legal requirements that adoptions cannot be delayed to match children with families of the same race, gender, culture and religion. But it instructs states to consider such factors if that is requested by the child or their birth parent.

When the Adoption and Safe Families Act became law decades ago, nearly a third of all foster children had been in the system for at least three years. The timeline was designed to push those cases in the direction of adoptions or guardianships so that children didn’t languish with uncertain futures. 

Since then, adoptions from foster care have more than doubled — from 30,000 in 1998 to 66,000 in 2019. Over the past decade, federal statistics show that the number of children awaiting adoption has also increased, by more than 20%. 

The attempt to rewrite ASFA comes at a time when some are pushing for its outright repeal, including Jerry Milner, the Trump-era head of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. Along with Kelly, his former deputy, Milner now leads a consulting group helping state and local systems interested in significant reforms of their child welfare systems, including the strengthening of family bonds so children can avoid permanent family separation. 

Critics of the current timeline that pushes for termination of parental rights after 15 months describe it as arbitrary and unjust to the families who mostly come from communities of color where daily life and the weight of historic and systemic injustice can bear down on home life. Advocates for parents say the federal timeline also penalizes people in recovery for substance abuse or seeking treatment for mental health challenges — complex healing that can take time and involve relapse and setbacks. 

In a February 2021 op-ed, Creamer and Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the NYU School of Law Family Defense Clinic, described the social context around the original law: “Passed in the wake of the now-debunked ‘crack baby’ scare, and at the same time as nefarious federal laws on crime and welfare, it reflected the racial and class biases that were ascendant at the time and that to this day continue to inflict harm on children, youth and families.” 

Under the proposed legislation, a 24-month timeline was selected to align with the Family First Prevention Services Act, a 2018 law that overhauled the federal child welfare system to decrease reliance on group homes and emphasize foster care prevention. But as it is currently worded in the Bass bill, states could choose not to abide by the two-year timeline — the legislation as written uses the word “may” — not “shall” — while continuing to receive federal funds for the children who remain in foster care. 

“We are hopeful that this is just the beginning of making sure that states have the flexibility they need to embrace and uphold family integrity,” said Shereen White, director of policy and advocacy for the national nonprofit Children’s Rights.  

Child welfare policy consultant Maureen Flatley, who helped craft both the original Adoption and Safe Families Act and Bass’ new bill, said the additional protections for parents would not only help more children reunify with their families, it could reduce the number of young adults who leave foster care alone and disconnected from stable housing, income or a support system. 

Flatley said while the timelines can succeed at creating a greater sense of urgency around permanency for foster youth, roughly 22,000 youth still age out of foster care each year with no legal family ties. Meanwhile, many of their parents may simply have needed more time to complete court-ordered service plans.

“By maintaining those family connections and those relationships, we may be able to mitigate and limit the number of kids who are aging out alone,” Flatley said. 

Under the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, states have received financial incentives to push foster children along the adoption path, despite critics’ objections. Bass’s bill does not address adoption incentives, instead taking aim at timelines that lead to the termination of parental rights — a critical first step for children to be adopted.

Still, even staunch detractors of the existing law applauded Bass’s attempt to update it through a social justice lens. 

“I don’t know what the chances are for passage, but the fact that we can even have this discussion shows that the racial justice reckoning finally is reaching child welfare,” said Richard Wexler, an outspoken foster care critic and executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “If it passes, it will improve the lives of, ultimately, millions of children.”

Thanks to The Imprint for this blog.

Increasingly Frequent

This is not the first story that I have read where a man didn’t know he was the father of a child until the court contacted him prior to allowing his biological/genetically related child to be adopted by strangers. And in fact, there are two instances of such fathers who didn’t know in my own family – my nephew who my sister lied about the responsible man and my dad, whose father was married not to my grandmother and since she simply handled it quietly herself, the man never knew.

However, in modern times now, there is a new push to make sure a father doesn’t want his child – even if the mother wants to relinquish. Hence, today’s story (comments in parentheses are my own) –

My foster daughter is 17 months old and we’ve had her since birth. Her biological mom signed away her rights. She said she’ll never be the mother our little one needs. She doesn’t want our daughter growing up in foster care.

Her biological mom wants her to be adopted by us. Her mom is 19 years old and is a former foster care youth who aged out of foster care. She knows we’re the best parents for our daughter (according to this foster mom who hopes to adopt). She made the selfless decision to put her child’s needs before her own.

Everything was going well until the courts said our little one’s biological dad showed up. The courts had to find the biological father. I don’t think this should be allowed. We were so close to adopting our daughter. I may be a little selfish here but I want him to sign away his rights so we can adopt.

(Note the possessiveness) This child is very much our child and we’re the only parents she knows. Losing her would be traumatic. Her biological dad didn’t know he had child until he was contacted. If you don’t know you have a child, then you shouldn’t get custody of the child. (What kind of argument is that ? Self-serving ?)

The only dad our daughter knows is my husband. She calls him daddy. He IS her daddy. We might lose our daughter to a man who is being selfish. Just because he shares DNA with our girl. Why can’t her biological dad see our daughter is settled and better off with us ?

Her dad works at Burger King. That’s not a real job to raise a child. Her biological dad can’t even take care of himself. Who will help him raise our daughter ? It’s selfish for her dad to fight for our child, instead of doing the right thing and signing away his rights (from this foster mother’s perspective of course). He’s putting his needs above hers.

How can we get her biological dad to see our daughter is bonded to us ? How can we get him to see the trauma of removing our daughter from the only home she knows ? How can we get him to see being a father isn’t in DNA ? DNA is overrated. (Of course, the genetics are over-rated to people who don’t share them with the child they want to possess.) Our daughter could care less about DNA. (Of course, she is ONLY 17 months old !!)

She knows who her daddy is. It’s not the man who’s biologically related to her. We hired a lawyer but the lawyer said he can’t do anything for us. I’m heartbroken. I’ll never recover losing my daughter to a man she has never met and didn’t know she existed.

Laws need to change to put the child first. If the biological dad doesn’t know he has a child, then he shouldn’t be contacted. DNA is overrated and isn’t the child’s best interests. Our daughter is bonded to us. Our daughter calls us mommy and daddy. We are mommy and daddy. Her biological dad will never be the daddy she needs (in the foster mother’s opinion of course). I don’t believe her biological dad understands what our daughter needs.

If we lose our daughter she’ll lose me as her mommy. She’s very bonded to us. We are her family. Every child needs a mommy and daddy to love them.

Please pray her biological dad backs off and signs away his rights. Please pray for the best interests of our child. Please pray reunification isn’t successful with her biological dad. Please pray for us. Pray for our daughter. We can’t lose our daughter. Our girl was born to be with us. God placed her with us for a reason. God knew she was our daughter. We were meant to be her mommy and daddy. Now the devil is trying to work his way in. Please pray hard for our family (and for reunification to fail ?)

(Note – it is common for God and religion to be used as a justification for tearing the natural family apart. This girl is young and she can make the adjustment. Also note the superiority and entitlement this woman expresses.  The dad will probably NOT work at Burger King all his life but there probably are dads raising their own kids who do.)

Some From Foster to Adopt Thoughts

The image is NOT the person who’s thoughts I will share today but it is not uncommon that people who foster end up adopting one of their foster care children. And so, here’s the story for today.

I’m a foster parent and have adopted from foster care. I’ve been in this (adoption related) group for a bit and I have been trying to learn and listen to all of you. I absolutely hate the toxic positivity and saviorism in the adoption world and the lack of understanding about trauma and the systemic issues that cause removals and adoptions that can largely be prevented. This needs to stop. However, I’m not understanding what you would suggest current foster parents do?

We didn’t go into foster care in order to adopt, we went into it to prevent family separations. We have always been active in helping the parents, in anyway that we can, get their kids back and keep a relationship with them. We have only adopted in cases that were extremely abusive and dangerous to the kids.

I don’t understand what your solution for these kids would be besides adoption? Kids that themselves have chosen not to continue a relationship with their family. Kids that say they want a new family. I see people in this group say to do permanent guardianship, but how is that not treating them as less than your other kids? Not letting them call you mom/dad if they want and not legally being a member of the family.

My kids were old enough to understand what happened and they asked for us to adopt them. They wanted to heal and have a safe and stable family. I’m in no way a savior or a hero or anything close to that for adopting. I just want to be there for these kids. I’m open minded, I want to hear from the adopted adults on their thoughts, which is why I joined this group. I want to do what’s best for them now and for their future and I have no desire to erase their history or original family from them.

So in response, not in regard to this specific situation, but from the big picture point of view came these important perspectives –

The solution is actually really simple. Address the reasons kids end up in care. Neglect is the number one reason and usually stems from addiction. So, tackle addiction with better programs that work that are not just accessible to the rich. Better social supports so families are not struggling. We need to reduce removals.

Guardianship has been practiced forever. Families have raised kids not their own since the dawn of time. It does not require legally severing a child’s identity. It does not require falsifying documentation. You can love and care for a child without that. They don’t need your last name to feel loved and cared for. It’s literally just paperwork. Adoption is not necessary.

A good adoption story (they exist, in fact, it can be said that both of my parents who were adopted, had good lives) does not make children being removed from their parents ok. Families need to be helped BEFORE they get to a point of their kids being removed. As a society, we need to truly care about family preservation.  Society needs to wake up enough to stop seeing adoption and foster care as something that saves children. Until that awareness becomes common, nothing about foster care or adoption will change.

Adoptees may never feel a sense of belonging to their adoptive family because it’s not their family. That may be hard for people who believe in adoption to accept but it is the obvious reality. If there were less foster/adoptive homes, the system would have to change. A change in what qualifies for removal, a change in what it takes to get kids home. All the money now wasted on foster homes could go back into social programs to help families.

If you want to help families, get out of the foster system if you are a part of it. Start working with local shelters and other organizations that help struggling families avoid Child Protective Services. Join programs that help foster youth aging out. Be an ally to parents caught up in the system. It’s a warped system that profits off of the destruction of families.  It is also that simple.